Let's start with a few examples of what has been snail-mailed to Imgur, the image-sharing community once described as the world's greatest procrastination site.
There's $400 worth of Silly Putty. An acrylic-on-canvas hand-painted Imgur logo that, when illuminated with a black light, reveals a hidden image of "dickbutt," a not-quite SFW meme. And, well, there are lots--lots--of bananas. (You know, for scale.)
Immature? Undoubtedly. But the packages--bananas and all--are signs that Imgur as a company, now housed in a spacious headquarters in San Francisco's Jackson Square, is growing up. To Imgur's staff of 70, these are beloved gifts from users, daily reminders that people care so much about what Imgur has built that they will put a hand-painted image of a giraffe, or, heck, just a banana, in the mail to say "thanks."
"The office has a really fun 'community' feel, kind of like Imgur itself," says the company's founder and CEO, Alan Schaaf, 28. "The things that you see that are on the walls and on our desks came directly from our users."
Imgur's new cavernous, brick-walled space is a far cry from Schaaf's tiny dorm room at Ohio University, were he dreamt up the idea during a particularly lonely junior-year winter break. He'd been listless, and was spending a lot of time on Reddit, and upon encountering broken image after broken image, he decided to unleash to the masses a little side project he'd hacked together. Thus, Imgur--simple image sharing, with no broken images--was born. "I had no idea--no idea!--what I was getting myself into," Schaaf says.
By 2014, every internet native had encountered Imgur, though it wasn't yet mainstream enough to have a universally accepted pronunciation (for the record, it's image-er). A major catalyst for growth occurred in April of that year. That's when Schaaf and the scrappy Imgur team decided that the years of bootstrapping were over: They accepted a $40 million venture capital investment.
It wasn't your typical funding round, in which the founder approaches investors and pitches a few slides showcasing the business model and projected hockey-stick growth. No, this time, it was Andreessen Horowitz, the esteemed Silicon Valley firm known for insightful early investments in Instagram, Oculus, Skype, and Zynga, pitching Schaaf. "I wouldn't say he's the only person in the world who heard something similar last year, but it was fairly unusual," said Lars Daalgard, the Andreessen Horowitz partner who brokered the Imgur investment and now sits on Imgur's board.
Two years after the funding infusion, Imgur has hired 50 new employees, including a chief operating officer and a vice president of product, who is a former Amazon product director. And it has expanded its outward-facing goal: To serve up all of the world's best entertainment. No, it's not just memes any more.
Daalgard says he saw in Imgur "real Democracy on the internet." That's because the site and app is at once a popularity based ranking of entertaining images, videos, and text-based memes, and a thriving social network of sorts. Most of Imgur's content is still images with text, or quick videos to flip through, without sound. Imgur can help users make a meme by overlaying text on an image. It also has a very popular "video-to-gif" tool. When needed, words are often added like closed captioning. Most are light--like a viral video of a Golden retriever taking a shower. But others are hard news: A compilation of the best photos and information about the Brussels attacks. Like Reddit, there are comments and upvotes.
In fact, Imgur, which has long been a Facebook and Twitch rival for the attention of Millennial men, is now--according to Comscore--the top non-Google destination for males between the ages of 18 and 34. (It had 900 billion image views in 2015--and 150 million monthly active unique visitors.) The company's main revenue streams are advertising (small on-page ad links) and promoted posts, which are created by brands in collaboration with a small in-house Imgur team.
Can Imgur keep its cool--internally and outward-facing--as it grows up? This will be the company's significant challenge going forward, with its new slate of C-suite executives, and as it grows past 100 employees this next year.
For now, traffic is no struggle. What's the special sauce to the rabid online popularity? Well, there are several factors, including a fan base that's grown over the years from the original Redditors who found Imgur a handy place to save a meme or personal photo. But it's also the ability to flex and grow--and listen as users speak up with ideas.
"The site has really grown over time, as people were submitting their suggestions to me. People wanted messaging, they wanted notifications, they wanted votes to influence the content they were seeing," Schaaf says. "I figured out, 'wow, this is really a destination and a community.'"
The boy from Ohio has even learned to speak Silicon Valley.
"Everything is an iteration," Schaaf says. "It's one of our core values."